Bradford: Are players buying what baseball is selling when it comes to analytics? It's a work in progress

Rob Bradford
April 09, 2018 - 11:01 am

USA Today Sports

It seems to be working.

The Red Sox plan this season was to load up their coaches with a whole new level of analytics, filtering a new level of information to the players. It's a whole new thing. And it's one which, judging by an 8-1 start and the lowest batting average on balls in play in years, certainly seems to have some merit.

But, make no mistake about it, the selling of this new way of doing things is, and will be, a work in progress. The information gatherers know it. The coaches know it. And the players, they sure know it.

Zack Scott, Red Sox vice-president of research and development: "In general it’s challenging to get experienced and talented people to look at their world through a different lens, likely due to several different layers of cognitive bias."

Mookie Betts, Red Sox outfielder: "It doesn't seem like baseball sometimes with all of the extreme shifts."

Ron Roenicke, Red Sox bench coach: "I think always since we started the shifting and things like that, you're going to have a pitcher that makes a good pitch and a guy is out front and he taps the ball through. You have to convince him first. You're right, that cost you. But say you go back a month. In the last month, we've saved you 10 hits and cost you two. Because it is an issue. A guy makes a great pitch he wants that guy to be out but he forgets about the bad pitch with a bullet line-drive that we're standing right there to catch. Everything is on percentages and the percentage is that I'm going to catch 10 balls and I'm only going to get hurt on two, I'm going to want to catch the 10 balls. And they buy into it. You just have to show them stuff."

Rick Porcello, Red Sox pitcher: "There's a huge human factor to the game that isn't taken into account up there in the office when they are coming up with all of this stuff. We talk about it but it's not my place to say. It's hard enough to worry about executing pitches and getting guys out. It's not my place to say where I think players should play. More often than not, the shift is beneficial. But there are those scenarios where guys can handle the bat and you can see it in their swing and they're trying to hit the ball to certain spots. The argument is that if they are trying to hit the ball to a certain place they still can't do it because of their angle and stuff. I don't know. There are a lot of guys who can hit a ground ball to the other side of the field."

As much as the conversation has advanced regarding how baseball is evolving, there is just as much buzz circulating through clubhouses about the merit of these changes.

"It is [a topic of conversation among the players and coaches]," explained Red Sox first base/outfield coach Tom Goodwin. "We laugh about it a lot."

It's easy to laugh when it is working. There have been and will be, other times when the topic isn't quite as amusing.

Roenicke knows this first-hand, having to fend off questions from a pitching staff in Milwaukee that wasn't quite sold on the outside-the-box placement of their fielders. So the then-manager decided to offer as much evidence as he could, as many times as possible, routinely giving his pitchers a list of how many outs the approach saved compared to when the plan backfired. 

And even with the experience with the Brewers, Roenicke himself had to be sold all over again upon arriving in Anaheim, where he was in charge of implementing a new wave of defensive analytics for the outfielders.

"Last year was the first time I've had someone actually tell me how it's generated and where guys are played," he said. "I said, 'OK, that's fine, but I want to see the spray chart. I want to see where we played them last year. They had where other teams had played.' After about a month I was watching and looking at all the information, I said, 'You know, I don't need that other stuff anymore. Just tell me where you think we should play.' Because I trusted it. As far as the outfield is concerned, it's not as exact as it is in the infield. There is a bigger radius than you are OK in. After a while, guys were fine with it. They were on me, they wanted to know where to play. So I would give them a sheet every day."

And now it's the Red Sox' turn.

As Roenicke points out, the first players any organization usually is forced to convince are the ones whose statistics are most dependent on the success of these shifts -- the pitchers. And with the extremes that all of baseball have gone to this season, that isn't going to happen overnight.

"My thoughts are 50-50 on it," Porcello said. "There's definitely a time and place for a shift. But the one things that all these formulas and algorithms don't take into account that there are human beings playing in the game and these are the best human beings in the world and they have the ability to make adjustments when they see something. Everybody wants to say percentages and all that stuff over the course of the season. Yeah, I agree with that. It's going to play out in your favor more often than not if you average it over the course of the season. But on a particular night, if you're talking about winning runs on base and you over shift a guy who has the ability to handle the bat and punch it through a shift. I just think it might be one of those scenarios where you let the guys play a normal spread defense and go from there. That being said my job is to pitch how I pitch no matter what and not change because of the shift. I think there are a lot of times where it's very beneficial. I also think you can go a little overboard, too."

The starter adds, "There are a lot of things going on as far as the analytic side of sports that don't necessarily feel like … The guys playing the game it's up to them to make the instinctual decision. There's a lot of trying to control every possible situation. I get it, but at the same time, it takes away from the game."

Then there are the guys who are actually fielding the balls put in play.

This season the refurbished Red Sox analytics department is surfacing more information than ever before, with layers upon layers of the defensive puzzle available for the first time. It is similar to what both Roenicke and Goodwin experienced last season with the Angels and Mets, respectively.

But when it comes to the Red Sox' outfielders there is more of that "human element" Porcello referenced than perhaps on any other club. Jackie Bradley Jr., Andrew Benintendi and Betts aren't your typical dots on the computer, and they know it.

"I feel we trust and we believe in what we see," Betts explained. "We shade, but we just go off of feel. Me, Jackie and Benny, we look at each other and say, 'What do you think?' If one guy says, 'Let's try this,' we all move as a unit. We're kind of out there controlling things. I think we've done a really good job."

"They know the players, where the balls have been hit, what the pitchers have. That always takes precedence over whatever we might have," Goodwin said of the three outfielders. "I let them know what the book says and they kind of go by the feel of the game. There has to be some kind of give and take in that situation. It's a slippery slope, but they do well. The thing is as long as you have the communication in the outfield that's more important than whatever you might come up. It really only matters when they hit it that certain times, especially with men on base. We give those guys a chance to freelance a little bit just because they are so good and they've seen the league a lot. They know how Chris Sale is going to pitch to somebody. They know how David Price is going to pitch to somebody. Especially in clutch situations. You try and make sure you're in the right spot."

Betts and Co. aren't ignoring the information. The right fielder also knows the wave of information isn't stopping, and neither is baseball's reliance on it. But, for the time being, they are going to defer to experience and one another first and foremost. 

It's a strategy not every infield and/or outfield can rely on, as they've seen when stepping into the batter's box.

"Small shifts, I get it. But we're vacating a whole side of the field. Again, I get it. It just seems like it's not baseball," said Betts, referencing some of the shifts put on against Red Sox hitters this season. "The coaches instil in us that out of 10 times we shift, we'll notice the one time it doesn't work vs. the eight that it does. Eight times they hit it right to us, boom, he's out. The one time it gets through we think we shouldn't have shifted. We just have to stick to it. If you're going to do it you have to be all in. There's no half in, half out.

"You step in the box and you see three guys on the left side, two outfielders all the way over there and one all the way over here. It's weird. They're all in on analytics, so we have to make adjustments."

And that's what all of the game is trying to do.

The push-and-pull is going to continue. That's part of the deal. That's part of this new wave of playing Major League Baseball.

"The analytics people have told them, 'When you see something, you're free to change. We're not locked in on this.' A hitter is always able to adapt to what he's doing, so if we're in a shift and all of a sudden we see a hitter really try and go the other way we may line up differently. It's communication with everybody," Roenicke said. "I think you have to."

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